We had been in Guatemala a few days, walked the market a few times, set up the OR’s and been in the clinics; we were working hard by this time. The OR was full of cases. Three operating tables – they are not called beds; I guess no one is resting – were side by side in one bigger room. The only air conditioner for a mile was purring along inadequately for the afternoon heat. I was working away on a hernia and thinking about my Spanish.
I was born in Panama. My parents are fluent in Spanish, having worked in Ecuador for years as doctors. My sister is fluent in Spanish the way she is in English: no difference for her. Spanish has shaped her life. I spent my childhood in South Texas, friends with Mexicans. I spent two summers in the Dominican Republic with my Dominican best friend Danny. I spoke Spanish passably after those summers. So, in high school and college I “studied” French. This has been recounted (http://www.bendlight.me/2010/08/look-at-us/) and you could (re)read it. It is just as hilarious as this. I was smart then and, of course, French, right? Makes perfect sense.
I studied French because I would not be boxed in to Spanish. I repeat, I was smart. My hernia patient is waking up and gurgling and so, of course, I call Lia, the interpreter, over to help. She, you know, interprets the gurgles into Spanish and English, because I did not learn Spanish. I don’t know what gurgle is in Spanish. For our team, the interpreters complete the operation. They put the closure on the wounds, like verbal stitches. I hate them and their easy, effervescent conversations. I love them and their expert help and their mellifluous cadence of Spanish. When they talk the words have a regal rhythm, like Andalusians prancing, but verbally. Anyway, it’s like that all week, loving and hating.
When you speak another language everyone is potentially interesting. Everyone is potential.
The great thing about Spanish speaking people, at least in Central America, is that they put up with the effort of the gringo. They love an attempt at communicating. This is in contrast to the French. My Parisian French teacher (again, http://www.bendlight.me/2010/08/look-at-us/ same link) was not so forgiving, although you will read that I could have cared less, but that is that story. The Guatemalans, alternatively, loved a try. They smiled always and nodded me in to my next conjugating disaster – I guess those are different than conjugal disasters. Lingual mistakes can be fun (or at least instructive) if the audience will put up with one’s shortcomings…I’ll stop.
As my son learns English it is all about failing. He mispronounces everything. He comes close to “yellow” by saying lleyllow and tries again after I say, “yes, buddy, ‘yellow!!!!!!’.” Etc. Same as walking. When he learned to walk it was about falling. When he speaks it is about saying it wrong and having no shame or fear and saying it again and again. Point, say: repeat. Language learned. My brain can learn a language. My ego has simply to get out of the way.
To practice letting my ego off the hook, I take fuzzy photos. From my earliest days with a Canon AT-1, fully manual SLR, I have allowed myself endless rope in photography. I relish mistakes and I know that they matter and are beautiful. My father instilled this in me by making sure I knew that it was ok to burn through any number of rolls of real film for the one photo. Anything could be thrown away. It’s art – it’s to be discarded, until it isn’t. And somewhere along the line I have learned that the blurs can be wonderful, like a green table of lettuce becoming a verdant stream. Good enough. Beautiful even. My Spanish is on the way, this way, by blurry errors and beautiful mistakes.